Oscar documentaries may come down to the "Wire"

Sun Feb 15, 2009 12:20pm EST
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By Mary Milliken

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - One man's high-wire walk between the World Trade Center towers is so unfathomable it could seem as fictional, but the real-life feat has made "Man on Wire" the documentary film to beat in this year's Oscars.

The portrayal of Frenchman Philippe Petit's illegal 1974 adventure in New York comes to the Academy Awards loaded with prizes, most notably British film of the year at this month's BAFTA Awards.

Director James Marsh said he was stunned by the BAFTA award -- a first for a non-fiction film -- but believes "Man on Wire" has crossed over to the mainstream because it is less like a documentary and more akin to a narrative movie.

"It was really like a heist film, a thriller," said Marsh, who reveled in the remarkable planning and obstacles that Petit's team faced in the lead-up to the walk itself, 1,350 feet above the sidewalks of Manhattan.

Documentary filmmaker A.J. Schnack says "Man on Wire" is the clear favorite because, not only has it won prizes, but its box office is high for a "doc" ($3 million in North America) and it has earned the respect of the documentary community.

"Nearly everyone I talk to really loves (it) and you don't get that all the time in the documentary category," said Schnack, who writes about the industry in his weblog "All These Wonderful Things."

But Schnack notes the four other films in the race have their supporters and could all be described as "dark horses" for the award at the February 22 show in Los Angeles.

The directors are all first-time Oscar nominees, but their films tackle very diverse issues, unlike the 2008 line-up, when war in Iraq and torture were the dominant themes.   Continued...

<p>Simon Chinn and James Marsh pose with the award for outstanding British film for "Man on Wire" during the 2009 BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) awards ceremony at the Royal Opera House in London February 8, 2009. REUTERS/Toby Melville</p>